What Joe Negron needed to hear during his “State University Listening Tour”

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Senate President-designate Joe Negron is asking: What do state university students need?

Had Negron stuck around a few minutes longer Monday on one leg of his “state university listening tour,” he might have heard one answer.

Negron is barnstorming the state with fellow senators and other state officials, hitting 12 institutions of higher learning in four days.

Up first on Monday were University of West Florida in Pensacola and Florida State University and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

The Stuart Republican had championed higher education in his December acceptance speech, proposing a billion-dollar spending boost to recruit and retain faculty and refurbish or replace aging campus facilities.

Pausing to take reporters’ questions as he dashed from FSU to FAMU, he also said he wanted more students to get in and out of college in the traditional four years.

Earlier, he’d been told some take fewer classes per semester because it’s cheaper. But that makes it longer to get a degree.

“If cost is a reason why students are only taking 12 (credit) hours rather than 15, I think we should address that,” he said. “Perhaps we could consider charging the same amount for 12 hours as 15 hours. That would be one option.”

Negron said he also wants to increase state-provided scholarships. Among the lessons of the first two stops, he said, “is to make sure that students of all economic backgrounds can attend the university to which they’re accepted.”

Enter Sebrenia Coleman, an 18-year-old first-year FAMU student from Tampa.

Negron talked to the engineering major in a math lab, interrogating her on the physics problems she was doing on a computer.

After Negron and his entourage moved on, Coleman turned to a remaining reporter: “OK, crazy question: Who was I talking to?”

After being told, she said, “Huh. He seemed to know more about this stuff than I do.” (Negron is an attorney by trade.)

Then she was asked by another reporter what she needed as a university student. A break on the number of classes she is required to take, Coleman replied.

“The biggest issue is requirements,” she said, explaining that she goes to FAMU on a university scholarship. But she also has a “very demanding” class load.

She’d rather take 13 credits a semester but is forced as a condition of her scholarship to take no less than 15, Coleman said. Because some classes are tougher, they are worth more, so she wound up taking 18 credits this semester.

She went from getting “almost all A’s” on assignments last semester to a mix of A’s, B’s and C’s this term, she said.

“When you have a curriculum that’s very rigorous and then you’re required to meet certain standards for a scholarship that doesn’t take that rigor into consideration, it becomes very stressful for a student,” Coleman said. “You wind up getting worse grades than you could – or should – be getting.”

In a statement released later in the day, Negron said that “each university was unique.”

But a common theme kept coming up, he added: “The importance of student counseling and how it contributes to student success, retention and graduation, particularly for students from lower income families, and those who are the first in their family to attend college.”

On Tuesday, Negron’s tour continues at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, University of Florida in Gainesville and University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Jim Rosica (jim@floridapolitics.com) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee. 

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.